Retail and food workers with unstable shifts lead to unhappiness and stress

Data came from targeted 27,792 survey respondents who work at the largest 80 retail and food services companies.

If you’ve ever worked in a sector where erratic shift work is the norm, you may know the way a fluctuating schedule, never planned out very far in advance, can affect your life. Shiftworkers today are beholden to just-in-time or on-call scheduling designed to minimize labor costs and shift the economic risk from the employers onto the employees.

The outcomes of this practice wreak havoc on the employee’s lives and health in measurable ways, new research has found. Not knowing your schedule ahead of time – or filling in for others on short notice – means you can’t plan your life, or your family’s, or childcare. With seesawing work hours, you’re never quite sure the size of your from paycheck week to week.


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Research published in American Sociological Review by sociologists Daniel Schneider at the University of California, Berkeley and Kristen Harknett at UC San Francisco, titled “Consequences of Routine Work-Schedule Instability for Worker Health and Well-Being,” examines the consequences the shift work on employee health and wellness.

Data came from targeted 27,792 survey respondents who responded to targeted Facebook advertisements and work at the largest 80 retail and food services companies between 2016-17.

The findings

  • Only 39% of respondents reported having a regular schedule
  • Their hours fluctuating by about 32% weekly
  • Nearly half of those surveyed have worked both closing and opening shifts back to back (dubbed “clopening” shifts by the researchers).
  • 16% reported receiving their schedules with less than three day’s notice.
  • Only 1 in 5 worked a regular daytime schedule

The effects of scheduling on health and wellness

Workers who had canceled shifts, on-call shifts, and close-opening shifts were had higher rates of psychological distress, poorer sleep, and unhappiness.

Working a close-opening shift means you have a 75% chance of poor sleep.

Of all workers, 43% reported feeling distressed. If a shift was canceled, the feelings of distress went up to 64%.

While 72% of shift workers reported poor sleep without a canceled shift, the rate of sleeping badly went up to 72% if their shift was canceled.

Researchers posit that a change to scheduling laws, such as ones that have already taken effect would have a positive impact on the well-being of shift workers. Scheduling laws that have already passed include “increasing advance notice… (as mandated in New York City, Oregon, and Seattle and San Francisco, respectively); banning on-call shifts (as mandated for retail workers in New York City); or eliminating close-opening shifts (as mandated in Oregon, Seattle, and in New York City’s fast-food industry.”

They estimate that getting rid of on-call shifts would reduce workers’ psychological distress by 15 percentage points and improve their sleep by 8 percentage points. Eliminating close-opening shifts would have a similar effect.

It’s the little things.


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.